How do you follow a critically acclaimed debut album, a string of sell out shows and win awards aplenty whilst battling among yourselves? Indeed for many, a rather cynical attitude looms over the self-titled sophomore album of aptly named duo, The Civil Wars.
A discussion that unfortunately remains the forefront to many industry and fans alike – will we ever find out the true meaning of what the band cited “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition” as reasoning for their sudden hiatus?
It’s a shame that the album cannot be listened to without the hanging aspect of whether the duo are still at their own Civil War, though there is no denying the sheer talent, beauty and chemistry explored throughout the record.
The Civil Wars are John Paul White, hailing from Alabama and Joy Williams, originating from Santa Cruz. Whilst listening to both their debut and latest release, it’s hard to believe the pair had a chance meet during a Nashville song writing camp in 2008. Being in a duo was never something Williams set out to do, that’s until she met John Paul. For whatever reason, the sublime pair explain, when their voices come together it becomes something they could not do alone, something much bigger than that, every song, every lyric, every chord; It’s quite clear to see they are each others opposites in every way resulting in a magical outcome when they share the stage.
Having landed perhaps the most sought after support several years back, the Civil Wars toured with Adele and from there on continued to build a UK fan base, coming as no surprise following from the success of their debut album, Barton Hollow. Released in the States, it sold an astonishing 25,000 copies in its first week.
However, their touring came to a tumultuous, crashing halt whilst here in the UK back last year, with statements quick to circulate and the duo expressing that they were simply unable to continue touring together at this time. Several months later the band addressed fans telling them to watch out for news on May 1. Well, May 1 came and a new album was announced, due for immediate release, personal statements from both Joy Williams and John Paul White thanked fans and suggested we would have some material very soon, adding to the ambiguity.
Their highly anticipated sophomore, self-titled album will be released on August 5 through Sensibility Music/Columbia Records, recorded in Nashville between August 2012 and January 2013, with Charlie Peacock, once again at the helm as producer of the album.
Album opener ‘The One That Got Away’, was the first offering of new material from the upcoming release. Whilst it shares its title with a Katy Perry hit, obviously it couldn’t be further away in sound. Reminiscent of their early workings and Rumours LP, the emotive laden single is hauntingly beautiful and a welcome return for our much loved duo.
Having said that, the rousing opener only adds fuel to the rumour mill as Williams’ delicate croons carry over White’s meaningful guitar, “I never meant to get us in this deep/I never meant for this to mean a thing”. Indeed, from the offset there is no denying The Civil Wars rather infatuating musical chemistry.
Second track, ‘I Had Me a Girl’ was the only track produced by Rick Rubin, in August 2011 albeit later completed by Peacock. The sound, intensified by its electric guitar and pounding drums is a highlight of the album, showcasing the ever rich, somewhat ferocious vocal interplay between the duo.
Their delectable vocals enthrall from the offset, with ever-instant charm especially prevalent through tracks such as ‘Same Old Same Old’ and ‘Dust To Dust’. Representing the ache of monogamy, Joy explains how ‘Same Old Same Old’ isn’t an “I’m leaving you” song. It’s a vulnerable confession of “I don’t want to leave”. The latter, ‘Dust To Dust’ is a somewhat anthemic ode to the lonely, “You’re like a mirror, reflecting me. Takes one to know one, so take it from me”.
Explaining that the new album will shed light on the ‘irreconcilable differences, Williams recently said, ” It’s so honest and it’s so rich and, not to toot my own horn, I’m just really proud of what we created together. And we created it together — we just happened to be in a bit of a civil war ourselves.”
Tracks such as ‘Eavesdrop’ and ‘Devil’s Backbone’ could quite easily be deemed another breakup song of the album, which once more has the duo trading leads, though its Williams’ soaring vocals that take center stage, perhaps leaving White in a cloud of billowing smoke. Williams explained recently that producer, Charlie Peacock really helped with arrangements and took ‘Eavesdrop’ to a totally different place. ‘Devil’s Backbone’ follows and is the duo’s take on an American murder ballad, dark, prickly and anxious.
In stark contrast, ‘From This Valley‘- with its indelible vocals, intertwining harmonies and hauntingly beautiful, soaring verses; showcases everything that we love about The Civil Wars. Written before the release of their debut, Barton Hollow, it’s the oldest song written on the album. Undeniably an album highlight, it showcases their vocal partnership at its best. You can almost hear, for the first time – the reminiscent joy of the duo performing live together. Their voices bouncing from one another, Joy twirling her hands about the air as John Paul smirks and looks on admiringly, their vocals climbing to match one another as the crowd gaze on. Unfortunately, it’s also here the album exposes the underlying issues.
Not new to covering songs, this release features two haunting renditions; ‘Tell Mama’ (Etta James) and ‘Disarm’ (Smashing Pumpkins). Their intensely somber, interweaving vocals and simplistic production prove they’re a band that do covers, but do it oh so well. Both ‘Disarm’ and ‘Oh Henry’ were worked up in Salt Lake City during their first Sundance, again before the release of Barton Hollow. The bluesy-rock ballad, ‘Oh Henry’, once more showcases Williams’ towering country vocals, perfectly complimented by John Paul’s instrumental backing.
The seductively sweet ‘Sacred Heart’ is another album highlight, expressing their exquisite harmonizing vocals, this time sung in French. Album closer ‘D’arline’ is a sweet lament, of loss and the belief that you’ll never be able to love anybody else again. Plucked out of tune and with distant vocals, this recording and performance of the song is the first and only in existence, a work tape recorded simply on Williams’ iPhone.
Unfortunately for the listeners, it seems the album closer is a sad nod to the internal discord and sorry state The Civil Wars find themselves in. That said, this sophomore release is nothing short of sublime. Civil Wars fans alike will not be disappointed and I, amongst many others continue with the faith that this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of the extremely talented pair. After all, “It’s much more than 1 + 1 = 2; It’s simply meant to be”.